Yao to join collection of Reebok forces

Reebok already has a lifetime deal with Allen Iverson, but the company is on the cusp of signing the deal of a lifetime with Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, sources have told ESPN.com.

While NBA centers including Shaquille O'Neal have had a hard time selling the shoes they endorse, there is little question that a Yao signing will have a major impact on the worldwide sports shoe business.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but it is believed that it will make Yao one of the top NBA shoe endorsers among a group that includes Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady and LeBron James, who signed a seven-year, $90 million contract with Nike in May.

"It is likely that this signing will have a greater impact in the worldwide shoe business on selling sneakers than Nike's signing of LeBron James," said Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp Ltd., a sports marketing firm that has been working with the Chinese government's sports ministry to bridge the U.S./Chinese sports industries. "There is hero worship in China and other Asian countries for Yao Ming, regardless of age or economic barriers."

Team Yao agents could not be reached for comment and Reebok officials would not confirm the deal. Yao's representatives had also been negotiating with the other two companies that complete the trio of major shoe companies --- adidas and Nike.

Nike had Yao under contract through his rookie season and was expected to re-sign him because of its commitment to the market in China. However, perhaps tipping off the direction negotiations would take, Nike did not market a Yao shoe and did not use him in advertising during the last year of its contract with him.

"Nike has enjoyed its relationship with Yao Ming and the opportunity to provide him highly specialized performance footwear and apparel products that have allowed him to perform at the top of his game," Nike spokesman Rodney Knox said. "We wish him continued success in his career."

Not only was Yao's Chinese team, the Shanghai Sharks, sponsored by Nike for his first four seasons there, but the company also has sent many NBA players who endorse their shoes to Asia over the past three years, among them Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Vince Carter.

Given Nike's dedication to the market, the news came as a shock to some.

"Yao's been a Nike guy since he was 13 and Nike was in the position to capitalize," said Bruce O'Neil, president of the United States Basketball Academy, which sends all-star teams to China and hosts Chinese teams at its facility. "It seems anti-climactic that they didn't get him given all their work and the fact that he has a presence in every major city in China."

The potential for business in China, the world's most populous country, is enormous.

"Close to 200 million people are playing basketball in China and he's a hero to 200 million more people in nations that made up the Asian Basketball Confederation," O'Neil said. "These people don't want to be like Mike, they want to be like Yao. That's why this is an incredible marketing coup for Reebok."

The deal also might be the best fit for Yao, who also endorses Gatorade, Pepsi, Visa, Apple Computers and Upper Deck.

"Nike has several worldwide international stars, but Yao could be Reebok's very first," said David Carter of The Sports Business Group, a sports marketing firm. "That could have been Reebok's best selling point. He'll definitely be the biggest fish in their pond."

Reebok's presence in China is certainly picking up. Its vector logo can be found at sporting goods stores, and posters of Iverson and Rockets guard Steve Francis are a familiar site in the country's largest cities.

"It's not as if Reebok doesn't exist in China," Ganis said. "But let's just say their presence will be much more now."

In December, Reebok launched its NBA-branded shoes in China. In June, the league announced that Reebok -- which signed a 10-year deal to be the official apparel maker of the NBA, WNBA and NBDL in 2001 -- would be the sole apparel licensee of league-branded products in China, with intentions to produce licensed product in India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia and Singapore in 2004.

Yao was the last of the major shoe deal free agents to accept an offer this offseason. Bryant, James and Carmelo Anthony became Nike endorsers, while Kevin Garnett went with adidas.

Earlier this week, Reebok signed Sonny Vaccaro, one of the biggest powerbrokers in the sport. Vaccaro built relationships with up-and-coming athletes at both Nike (Michael Jordan) and adidas (Bryant and McGrady) and is expected to grow Reebok's association with highly touted prep stars.

Yao, who averaged 13.5 points and 8.2 rebounds per game in his rookie NBA season, is currently playing for China in the 22nd annual Asian Basketball Championship. The team, which also features Toronto Raptors center Mengke Bateer, beat Syria and Chinese Taipei this week.

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at darren.rovell@espn3.com.